Have you ever been uncertain about whether you should include something in a novel or story that might adversely affect readers (e.g. sex abuse, drug-taking or self-harm) – or how to tackle a particularly sensitive topic? I certainly have when dealing with both sex and terrorism, wondering whether I should exclude certain details that although authentic may be disturbing for some. As a reader, have you ever been affected in a good or bad way by the treatment of an issue in a novel?
Today my guest author wdiscusses ethical dilemmas and conundrums in novels and during the writing process.
Guest Post by Laura E. James
Jennie, thank you so much for inviting me onto your site.
One of the greatest authors to tackle the big issues is Jodi Picoult. My Sister’s Keeper was the first novel of hers I read, ten or so years ago. If I recall correctly, Picoult’s books were breaking through in the UK at that time, and it seemed a new novel appeared on the supermarket shelves every time I visited. I’m still making my way through the backlist, and love the fact there are more Picoult books I’ve yet to enjoy. Her books cover an array of issues and moral dilemmas, and her latest, Small Great Things, is lauded as her most important book to date.
I’ve been fortunate enough to attend three Jodi Picoult talks over the last few years, and the research, care and concern she puts into producing her books is apparent. During her visit to the UK in December 2016, Picoult explained that Small Great Things took approximately two years to research and write. Dealing with the issues of prejudice and power, she spoke about the importance of getting the characters right, of understanding both sides of the story and of portraying the issues accurately and with sensitivity.
Her words resonated. The books I write, while character driven, also focus on issues and moral dilemmas. My 2013 debut, Truth Or Dare? questions whether it’s acceptable to do the wrong thing for the right reason. Are there times when it is the only option? What circumstances would lead a person into making that choice?
My second book, Follow Me Follow You, looks at child attachment disorder and I recall reading a review which made me consider whether I was ready for the responsibility that comes with writing such novels. The reader remarked that the book made them rethink how they speak with their children. I was blown away that something I’d written had left such an impression, but it made me truly thankful I had carried out the research and represented the facts accurately, even though they were within a fictional world. That reader’s comment is in the back of my mind when I’m researching and writing, as it brought home the importance of keeping the story authentic.
What Doesn’t Kill You, my third book, delved into deeper issues including teen self-harm. When I started researching, I almost talked myself out of including the issue. I was so shocked by the prevalence and the methods of self-harm, I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to put it in the book. Yet, these concerns also convinced me it was a subject that needed to be discussed; needed to be in the novel. I had to present the facts accurately, not glamorise self-harm, not be so descriptive as to act as a trigger, and to ensure my teen had a positive outcome. I wanted to get it right.
It takes courage for people to tell their personal story, and I am truly grateful to everyone who tells me theirs, because without them, my books wouldn’t exist. I have a responsibility to get it right, for all the kind and courageous souls who share their stories, for those who have travelled the same paths as my characters, and for the readers who invest in the story.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Living in and enjoying the inspirational county of Dorset, Laura E James is a graduate of the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme, and one eighth of The Romaniacs, the RNA Industry Awards 2015 Media Stars Winner.
Laura’s latest novel, What Doesn’t Kill You, is the first title in Choc Lit’s Dark imprint ‒ compelling, emotional, hard-hitting novels.
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Many thanks for hosting me, Jennie.